WHAT feels now like light years ago, when my son was around two months old, I met an old friend for coffee in the little cafe down the road. Baby perched on my knee, I told her airily that having kids wasn't going to change me: it was all a matter of choice, how much you allowed yourself to be sucked into all that mum stuff. The look in her eye, as she politely nodded along with me, suggested she didn't believe a word. Correctly, as it turns out.
But it's only now, emerging from the tunnel, that I can see which of the changes parenthood brought (and which I tried so hard initially to deny) were permanent and which surprisingly temporary. In the thick of it, you are Alice down the rabbithole, Dorothy whisked away in a whirlwind, scrabbling for toeholds in a strange world and unsure if you will ever find your way home. And I was reminded sharply of that feeling this week by the food writer Esther Walker's post on that bewildering feeling of having turned into 'this mum person', some strange alter ego exiled from what used to be your life. Why, for all the billions of tiresome words written about women 'getting your figure back' after having a baby, is so little intelligently said about recovering your identity?
Hell, the body thing is easy by comparison: eat less, run more, and if you haven't got the energy yet, stop worrying and wear maternity clothes for a bit longer. What would be more useful to new mothers than guilt-tripping them back into their old jeans is knowing that there is a point, however unlikely it sounds, at which one's mojo (or the bedraggled remains of it) returns. That your identity is not lost, but still out there somewhere, waiting patiently to be found. And while everyone's road back to sanity is different, these are some things I found useful.
1. Sleep. Hard to imagine amid the broken nights, but it will return one day: and lo, you will marvel at how fast your brain works when you are not mad-eyed and murderous with exhaustion.
2. Work, or its equivalent, even for a couple of hours a week, when you're ready for it. It doesn't actually have to be a job. Just something not baby-related, that you do for and by yourself (and if possible also for people who are grateful for your efforts, instead of spitting them up down the back of your jumper). Reading a newspaper in a cafe would do, frankly.
3. Distance. Small babies are such vast caverns of neediness that you do simply have to sink into it for a while: the boundaries between child and parent have to blur. But when the baby grows up a bit, and stops being quite so needy, and especially when it has kindly grandparents, there is much to be said for a childfree weekend away. You can't see your non-maternal self clearly when with your child.
4. Old friends, especially those without children, who can remember what you were like before you had children. Preferably with photographic evidence.
5. Realising that you're chasing a moving target. The good news is that everyone is getting older, slower, more out of the loop: even those who haven't spent three years changing nappies now can't drink like they used to, and secretly think the music they grew up with is better than whatever they're pretending to like now. You don't have to spring back to being the person you were pre-children, because even if you hadn't had kids, three years on you still wouldn't be that person now. At least as a parent, you've got an excuse.